Confucius (551-479 BC)Before leaving for China, I felt it was important to review changing United States-China relations, vital for understanding how that rising power and the U.S. view each other today. I offer my blog readers this brief historical summary because we Americans traditionally have focused more on events in Europe, due to our cultural and ethnic roots. As the Chinese sage Confucius counseled, “Study the past if you would define the future.”

Despite China’s long, expansive history under powerful emperors, the 1842 British defeat of China in the First Opium War starkly revealed the weakness of the Qing dynasty, encouraging European governments to demand territorial concessions through humiliating unequal treaties.

In l899 U.S. President William McKinley called for an Open Door Policy with China, calling for all nations to have equal access to the Chinese market, even those (like the United States) without a sphere of influence. Despite this apparent concern for China’s sovereignty, American sailors and marines joined European powers in suppressing the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against foreigners carving up Chinese territory.

Boxer Rebellion 1900 Japan seized China’s Manchuria province in l931, six years later invading China. After the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. sent aid and advisers to both Nationalist and Communist forces fighting Japanese troops in World War II.

After the 1945 defeat of Japan, a civil war raged between the Nationalist and Communist forces. The victory of the Chinese Revolution in l949 forced Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist troops to flee to the island of Taiwan. The Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung proclaimed, “China has stood up.”

In the emotional clamor of partisan politics in the l950s, the hot issue of “Who lost China?” led America to adopt a Cold War foreign policy that attempted to isolate the People’s Republic of China, a nation of over 500 million people at that time.

The United States orchestrated United Nations voting to recognize Taiwan as China, granting the Republic of China (Taiwan) China’s permanent seat on the Security Council. In 1950 U.S. armed forces and the mainland’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) became embroiled in the Korean War as American-led U.N. forces crossed the 38th parallel and approached China’s border.

When President Lyndon Johnson escalated America’s troop levels in Vietnam in the mid-l960s, he worried that China might enter the conflict. However, Beijing provided Hanoi with only economic and military aid, not combat forces as in Korea.

In l971, after undisclosed negotiations with the Nixon administration, the Peoples Republic of China received China’s permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council—and its veto power.

Mao Nixon
The following year President Richard Nixon stunned the American people when he secretly flew to Beijing to initiate a new détente with China and its Communist leader Mao Tse-tung. A shrewd strategic thinker, the realist Nixon also sought to play the “China card” to counter the Soviet Union’s influence in Asia.

China invaded Vietnam in February l979 to teach its fellow-communist neighbor a “lesson.” Beijing justified its short, punitive, and costly border offensive by pointing to Vietnam’s mistreatment of ethnic Chinese on its soil, Hanoi’s provocative “friendship” treaty with the USSR, and the Vietnamese government’s 1978 overthrow of Beijing’s Cambodian ally, the Pol Pot regime.

President George H.W. Bush’s close relations with the Chinese leadership, after serving as Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in China, helped him obtain the U.N. Security Council’s 1990 approval for collective security action to end Saddam Hussein’s aggressive takeover of Kuwait in the first Gulf War.

Presidents Hu Jintao, Putin and Bush President Bill Clinton promoted globalism to increase exports to China, thus providing more jobs at home. In 2000 George W. Bush attacked Clinton for considering China a “strategic partner.” In contrast, the second Bush Administration initially labeled China as a “strategic competitor,” before embracing a similar trade-oriented policy toward China’s vast market.

The hosting of the 2008 Summer Olympics by the Peoples Republic of China brought the emergent nation of 1.3 billion people to the attention of the world. Global media coverage highlighted China’s long history, remarkable economic growth, and unique “socialist market economy”–to many Americans a contradiction in terms.

In July 2009 the Obama administration held a Strategic Economic Dialogue with Chinese leaders in Washington, D.C. President Obama presciently observed, “The relationship between the United States and China will shape the 21st century.”

Presidents Barack Obama and Hu JintaoIn November President Obama visited Beijing, engaging in discussions with Chinese President Hu Jintao on economic, security, and international issues. These initial talks revealed areas of mutual interests as well as differences that will require extensive diplomatic talks in the years ahead.

This overview of United States-China relations since the late 19th century reveals the ups and downs in our relationship with the Middle Kingdom. Past misunderstandings and conflicts complicate our shared interest in beneficial economic relations and a peaceful world.

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